RIDER >> TOM HARTLAND
BIKE >> SUZUKI GSR600
DISTANCE >> 10,000 MILES
It was 6.30pm, I’d lost the receipt I’d scribbled my directions on, had no map, euros, mobile coverage, petrol or Spanish. So began my trip, scrabbling around Santander in fading light, trying to find a hostel that was always only 100ft from the port I’d arrived at. It was four hours later when a friendly elderly couple took charge and guided me to the door on foot.
Inside I shook my Aldi touring boots off for the first time since leaving home nearly 48 hours ago and slumped onto a low sofa, eating a pre-packaged meatball meal alone. It was going to be a long three months.
Proficient planning had not emerged as a personal strength in any of my 24 years on the planet. The trip would be limited to the borders of Europe because I didn’t trust myself with a carnet. My expectations had suffered and I’d already reconciled myself to not being ‘that guy’ halfway up the Karakoram Highway, emblazoned in the mud of far off kingdoms with a cigarette hanging from his lip – the guy I wanted to be.
Now, lying awake in a dark hostel room, I found that whole embodiment of adventure laughable. I recognised the disastrous, protracted start for what it was – an adventure itself – and drifted off to sleep with big dreams and tall ambitions.
Leaving Santander a day late but considerably better equipped, I saddled my bike, a third-hand Suzuki GSR600K6, for the ride west. I’d only purchased Candy Indy (named after her lustrous dark blue factory paint) a month before the trip but had already had to tinker significantly. Not being mechanically minded I accepted the work had accomplished nothing but clutch feathering glossed over the low rev stalling.
Sandwiched between the rocky coastline and semi-tropical plantations I barely noticed the Picos de Europa to the South. What I saw looked a lot like Wales. Reaching Gijon I swigged antacid from the bottle to quash my upset stomach before repeating my earlier night’s charades to find a room.
My spectacularly early departure (with hindsight I probably mistook “Check Out” for “Breakfast”) gave me the full day to get lost in the Spanish mountains. More confident in the loaded bike, I put the hammer down properly, sneaking smiles as I hung low through corners clinging precipitously to the mountainsides.
Following the AS15, giant birds escorted me to wind-scoured summits before I plummeted through verdant countryside and quaint villages, eventually emerging into the valley below. The motorway carried me to Lugo, where I sat banging my boots on a wall, puzzled as to why all the hostels were closed.
Forty five minutes out of town was a campsite with strong, bolted shut gates. Dejected, I scratched through my phrasebook in the dark for a useful expression. Slow stepping into a farm compound I met an elderly couple, who struggled with my grasp of Spanish. Following their gestures led me to a nearby Pension, where I was overfed and over-watered. Belly full of beer, calamari and steak I rode a heady wave to bed.
At some point south of Santiago de Compostella the land stopped being green and mars rocks cluttered the rolling landscape, high contrast against the cerulean sky. Weird, contorted trees sat in organised groves on either side of the roads. The temperature soared with every mile heading inland, away from the buffeting of North Atlantic weather.
Salamanca, Avila, Segovia – all scorching – unapologetically bold buildings bleached white and vivid green cypress trees bordering the streets. My meandering route saw me hit Madrid well after dark. I’d like to say Navfree (my GPS app) took the burden out of finding my hostel, but it was characteristically shit.
The downside of not reading the tourist guides is you end up in a lot of cathedrals. Cathedral after damn cathedral. Desperate to my soul a break I signed up to a city tour, bumped into a few Aussies and hooked up our itineraries (i.e. I hijacked their itineraries) as they were also heading south to Seville and Cadiz.
Taking the quieter roads ensured a plentiful supply of fresh, fragrant air as the roads passed through lush and flowering fields.
In the days that followed I began to understand my place in this trip. It wasn’t about the cities or even to some extent the people. It certainly wasn’t about cathedrals. It was about me and the bike, putting in serious mileage through stunning terrain. Battling the ferocious crosswinds along the Strait of Gibraltar to Tarifa (unsurprisingly a windsurfing world capital) and racing up big brown mountains to Rhonda with a smile that tore my face in two. That was what it was all about.
After a few days on foot patrol in Grenada I’d forgotten how to navigate a bike and embarked on a convoluted, adventurous and exhausting day through the dustbowl towns of Gérgal, Serón, Albox, Chirivel, Cúllar and up to Puebla de Don Fadrique. Endless sand moguls became lush woodland which pulled me into the mountains on flawless tarmac. The back wheel would grease out now and again on tightening corners reminding me of the weight strapped in my panniers. I pushed on harder, lower and faster – just about keeping a maniacal howl back from bursting into my helmet. The low golden sun painted the valley below as I approached Hornos, a small village perched on a rocky vantage overlooking a long lake. On the banks of that lake I pitched my tent in the dark, forgetting to eat, smile lingering.
I crawled out into the early morning mist with a powerful longing for the beach. I peeled the gravel out of the indents on my forearms while boiling up coffee. It was highway mile crunching all the way today, but with the waves of hot air rolling off the mainland it couldn’t have felt further from English motorbiking.
I left Barcelona on the 25th day of the trip, with no idea of the awful day ahead that would taint my view of France forever. Engrossed in the riding, I was through the Pyrenees and into France before I realised, and then a storm rolled in. I rode into and out of Montpellier six times looking for hostels, each attempt foiled by a sprawling underground labyrinth of car parks and underpasses. Soaked and shivering, I eventually found a hotel but turned myself away, offended by the 80 euro price tag. Fastforward a very long time and there I am in the dark, standing in the downpour outside a closed McDonalds, realising from stolen WiFi that Montpellier doesn’t actually have any hostels. In fact 80 euros was definitely one of the cheapest hotels around.
It was with a certain trepidation that I pulled my helmet on and ventured shivering and ill into the darkness. I headed east in the hope of finding something cheap out of town, which I did, but only after half an hour’s worth of near-death aquaplaning down the motorway. Unstrapping the panniers in the rain under a blue neon hotel sign felt a little bit film noir. Even so, coughing my way into a weak, restless sleep I realised I didn’t like France much so far. Tomorrow I’d put this godforsaken country in my mirrors.